Happy-go-lucky sword hero Meng Sing-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) renounced the Martial World to live in marital bliss with his adoring wife, Butterfly (achingly lovely Joey Wong) in their idyllic forest home, but is drawn back into the fold by his childhood friends, kung fu diva Sister Ko (Michelle Yeoh) and sulky swordsman Yip Cheung (Donnie Yen). Ko still harbours feelings for Sing-Wan though he remains devoted to his wife. Meanwhile Yip Cheung secretly loves Sister Ko and confides in the sisterly Butterfly. As heroes of the Happy Forest clan the gang serve ailing imperial Eunuch Tsao (Chang Kuo-Chu) who enlists Sing-Wan to help foil Master Suen (Elvis Tsui), a respected nobleman suspected of plotting a coup against the playful young Prince Cha (Cantopop star Jimmy Lin Zhi-Ying). After faking his death, Sing-Wan goes undercover as Suen’s trusted right hand man but ends up in an arranged marriage to Miu Siu Siu (Yip Chuen-Chan), another long-lost childhood friend who reveals Sister Ko has a far more elaborate scheme in mind.
Butterfly and Sword is feted among many fans of Hong Kong films for featuring the most insanely inventive action choreography of any wu xia movie from the Nineties. Which is saying something when one considers how many outstanding genre pictures were produced back then. Given director Michael Mak was known for his romantic dramas and the bawdy classic Sex & Zen (1991) it is likely action choreographer Ching Siu Tung, director of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), The Heroic Trio (1983) and The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011) among many classics, was the man behind its delirious imagery. His action sequences are truly incredible: swordsmen ricochet off walls and trees, flick leaves as lethal weapons, bounce like human yo-yos, split bodies apart by shooting sticks of bamboo, or fly in mid-air wielding swords like helicopter blades. By far the most memorable martial arts move featured here is the so-called Flying Arrow, wherein Michelle Yeoh uses her sash to propel the sword-wielding Tony Leung as a human projectile right through his enemies!
However, the characterisations etched by the all-star cast are equally outstanding which is likely where Mak’s skill came into play. The tangled relationships are beautifully drawn, not just through the performances but also through action. This ability to make abstract emotions physical on screen is an aspect of wu xia cinema routinely overlooked or misunderstood by many western critics. Like Ang Lee’s more celebrated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) this uses the grammar of martial arts movies to examine relationships and visualize those emotions its protagonists do their utmost to suppress. The opening voiceover ably surmizes the film’s chief theme as our narrator observes mastery of martial arts requires the suppression of emotions but love is the hardest to suppress. Star-crossed lovers caught in a web of deceit woven by implacable, hypocritical elders is a reoccurring motif throughout wu xia fiction, not least in Killer Clans (1976) the original Shaw Brothers adaptation of the Gu Long novel on which this is based.
Mak takes an altogether more humane approach to the source material. He weaves an incredibly complex, fast-paced plot leavened by wry philosophical and romantic asides and an abundance of good humour. The frenetic cinematography is superb though sadly poorly served by most DVD transfers whilst the editing enhances the insane fluidity of Ching Siu Tung’s spectacular choreography. Butterfly and Sword actually exists in two versions: a seventy-seven minute international version and the eighty-two minute original Hong Kong cut. In either version the film packs genuinely surprising, exciting twists and turns right up to the outrageous finale which is simply too delicious to be spoiled here. A greatest hits montage of all the fight scenes plays over the end credits accompanied by a lovely theme song performed by Michelle Yeoh herself.